The Songlines and the Songlines

It’s been thirty years since Bruce Chatwin published The Songlines. That’s the kind of anniversary that usually elicits either a renewed celebration and revival of a work or a fresh attempt to boot the author up the arse, a la Nicolas Rothwell upon the publication of Chatwin’s letters. Intriguingly, with consummate skill and nuance, Richard Cooke has taken a shot at doing both of those things simultaneously in a long reappraisal of The Songlines for the Australian magazine The Monthly. His essay is a model of what literary criticism can do when combined with cultural and biographical research, a deep sympathy for the writer’s intentions and accomplishments, an awareness for the writer’s shortcomings, and a keen eye for fine-grained textual details. What Cooke has essentially written is a paean to The Songlines as a remarkable, visionary book that was compromised from the outset by the limitations of its author’s vision, and that ended up offering a crippled representation of the very thing it aimed to praise. Continue reading

In Edinburgh

Edinburgh is a place of absolute contrast and paradox. A sense of quality in men and things goes hand in hand with chaotic squalor. The rational squares and terraces of the New Town confront the daunting skyline of the Old. Slums still abut the houses of the rich. Wild mountain scenery impinges on the heart of the city. On fine summer days nowhere is lighter and more airy; for most of the year there are icy blasts or a clammy sea fog, the haar of the east coast of Scotland. Edinburgh is contemptuous of the present. In no other city in the British Isles do you feel to the same extent the oppressive weight of the past. Mary Queen of Scots and John Knox are a presence. The dead seem more alive than the living. There is a claustrophobic, coffin-like atmosphere that makes Glasgow, in comparison, seem a paradise of life and laughter. Moderate health is virtually unknown. Either people enjoy robust appetites, or they are ailing and require protection. Heady passions simmer below the surface. In winter the city slumbers all week in blue-faced rectitude, only to explode on Saturday evenings in an orgy of drink and violence and sex. In some quarters the pious must pick their way to church along pavements spattered with vomit and broken bottles.

Bruce Chatwin
‘The Road to the Isles’

A Sunday Supplement Icarus

In the book review section of today’s Weekend Australian, Nicolas Rothwell offers a typically erudite assessment of Under the Sun: The Letters of Bruce Chatwin:

Chatwin… was a truth-trimmer, he had the certainties and fallibilities of an autodidact, he was a travel-writer with touristic protocols, his writing never escaped from his training-ground in journalism; yet he, being endlessly obsessed by self-scrutiny, knew all these things, and it is his attempt to escape from them that gives his life, and thus this book, its quality of tension.

Rothwell is nicely suited to discussing this particular book. His own writings are recognisably kith and kin to Chatwin’s work, and, at the very least, the first section of his Wings of the Kite-Hawk is as good as Chatwin’s best. Yet despite his clear affinity with Chatwin, Rothwell holds little affection for him. He pays no mind to the nuances of Chatwin’s novels except for a few brief remarks on The Songlines, and his attitude towards Chatwin as a self-mythologised figure is resolutely ambivalent. Although he celebrates the aspirations that propelled Chatwin around the globe, he turns a jaundiced eye towards the resultant words on the page: Continue reading